The Loneliness Economy
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Categories: Ancient, Not an expert

The Loneliness Economy

two whitetail deer, one eating grass and the other raising its back right leg to scratch itself
The local deer don’t live in an economy and they don’t seem lonely. Photo by author, 16 May 2023

This post is not about all the terrible people on the Internet and social media who make their money giving the lonely someone to blame. It is about changes in rich economies over the past 20 years which make it possible to do more and more things without interacting with another human being beyond “how much?” or “oh, one last can of that wet food!” (and corps are pushing self-checkout to reduce the first).

Over the past 20 years, there has been a concerted effort to destroy commercial spaces where introverts and people with uncommon interests used to gather. Music stores are basically gone in favour of renting music on iTunes or streaming services. Copy shops are much less important now that printers and layout software are cheap. Internet cafes disappeared as most people got a smartphone. Used book stores are fading away because people rent most of their novels on services like Amazon. Many hobby stores are being replaced with mail-order (often mail-order in another country, which has been a problem since COVID arrived and since the former president tried to destroy the US Postal Service; the cost of ordering things from the USA since March 2020 is sometimes reasonable and sometimes extortionate). Art supply stores are more or less hanging on, but the local dollar stores are competing with them on plywood panels and felt-tipped pens.

About the only new thing which serves this social function is the board-game cafe. I am told that video game arcades still exist, and I see comic stores and Games Workshop stores. I suspect that the shift to remote white-collar work has affected how people make friends there. Libraries are trying to reinvent themselves as general lending services, but the local ones strongly encourage people to borrow novels as ebooks, and since COVID arrived they have had less books on the shelves or banned the public from entering the stacks at all.

Running a small store is hard, and these stores are inefficient and therefore expensive. But its hard to develop a relationship with any of the constantly shifting staff of a big box store. As late as 2012 I got to know and chat with people through frequent visits to their hobby shops or library branches. Being able to order any book you want by mail is convenient! But you don’t have to get out of your house and talk to someone to pick it up, and you won’t meet someone in the cookbook aisle and discover a common interest in Tibetan food. More and more, doing something face to face with people you don’t know well is a choice, and if you do not deliberately make it, it will not happen. I think this is one reason why there are so many lonely people today.

If you change one part of a system, other parts can grow or shrink out of control. In the 20th century, we know people who gained weight because they left a heavy labour job but kept eating the way they were used to. Changing economies in this way removed one common way that people make new face-to-face acquaintances without adding another to balance it. Given the popularity of bars and coffee houses, I don’t think its uncommon for people to want public spaces they can hang out in and watch and gradually engage with as they get comfortable. Marching into an unknown space with unknown people and asking to participate directly is hard for many people!

Jerks on the Internet often tell the lonely to “get a hobby.” But these changes make it harder to meet new people through a new activity! They are not as dramatic as the release of the iPhone or the appearance of ridesharing services and ingredient-in-a-box services. But they have changed the structure of society so that people have to actively work to meet new people.

Edit 2023-08-28: oh wow:

[When Vonnegut tells his wife he’s going out to buy an envelope] Oh, she says, well, you’re not a poor man. You know, why don’t you go online and buy a hundred envelopes and put them in the closet? And so I pretend not to hear her. And go out to get an envelope because I’m going to have a hell of a good time in the process of buying one envelope. I meet a lot of people. And, see some great looking babes. And a fire engine goes by. And I give them the thumbs up. And, and ask a woman what kind of dog that is. And, and I don’t know. The moral of the story is, is we’re here on Earth to fart around. And, of course, the computers will do us out of that. And, what the computer people don’t realize, or they don’t care, is we’re dancing animals. You know, we love to move around. And, we’re not supposed to dance at all anymore.

Interview by David Brancaccio, NOW (PBS) (7 October 2005) care of

Edit 2023-11-05: I think a useful keyword is ‘third space’

(scheduled 21 March 2023)

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5 thoughts on “The Loneliness Economy

  1. Andrew Gelman says:

    The local libraries in Paris are pretty good for hanging out. Each branch is run locally and has its own feel. Different libraries will even order their books in different ways (for example, BD’s alphabetized by title or by author).

    In contrast, the libraries in NYC are pretty bad. The librarians are helpful, but the libraries themselves are homogenized and bureaucratized. It doesn’t help that they’ve had approximately 0 funding for the past fifty years.

    1. Sean says:

      Humh, I think differences in library culture around the world could be a good post or article! Then there are academic libraries and archives which are helpful, versus ones which seem aggrieved that someone might want to touch their treasures.

      Have the NYC libraries tried to push themselves as a general lending service with camping equipment, power tools, and so on?

    1. Sean says:

      Its too bad that the essay is mixed up with covid denialism (specific gambit: “we can’t do anything about it”, The Rhetoric of Reaction has a pretty good list of these gambits). In Austria we eliminated COVID outside of Vienna in spring 2020 with just masks and restrictions on indoor gatherings, no vaccines and few N-95 and N-99 masks! If every country had been as effective at containing the virus, the pandemic would have been over by 2021 and not ravaging the world in 2023! But enough countries let the virus spread that it developed more infectious variants and now we are in a rough spot.

    2. Sean says:

      Here is how one of those specialty shops which went out of business in 2013 described it (Tony’s Trick and Joke Shop est. 1970-something):

      “Unfortunately, it’s just a sign of the times,” Hatfield said of the closure. “It wasn’t any one thing.”

      Hatfield said the economy remains soft, tourism is still not as strong as it had been and rent has continued to increase — even though there are a lot of empty storefronts in the downtown core.

      “At the same time, magic sales have gone increasingly online and costume sales are either online or mostly at those Halloween pop-up stores that come into town,” he said. “Any one of those things would have been survivable, but a combination of four or five of them is not.”

      Customer review of the store in 2011 here

      That was about when I saw used book shops in my cities in Canada vanish for similar reasons.

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